Although he has always been a passionate motoring enthusiast, it is in aviation publishing that Norman made his name. Trained as an engineer at Rolls Royce Aero Engines and Bath University, in 1973 he opted for a career in the technical press after noticing that his fellow engineering postgrads were struggling to write their theses, whereas his (on exhaust emission analysis equipment) was progressing nicely.
With the trade and technical press mostly located in London, this decision involved a reluctant move back to his native city, but, by 1978, Norman felt sufficiently established to gamble on relocating somewhere more rural, and found an editing post on a motorcycle paper in Morecambe. “It wasn't a fantastic job,” he confesses, “but the office banter was second to none and, as my first wife and I Iiked the Lancaster area, we put down roots.”
In 1982, after a couple of other posts in Manchester, and a spell writing handbooks for nuclear submarines at Barrow, Norman went freelance and began looking for a publication he could edit from home. “As luck would have it, the British Microlight Aircraft Association (BMAA) was looking for someone to edit and produce its magazine, and I got the job.” Back then, both the association and the sport were embryonic. “When I started I knew virtually nothing about small piston-engined aircraft,” he recalls, “the learning curve was practically vertical!” But he must have done something right, because he continued to edit the association's magazine – initially called Flightline and latterly Microlight Flying – for over 13 years, and still enjoys helping with its production today, 33 years later, receiving an award from the Royal Aero Club in 2013 for services to aviation publishing.
That award was in recognition not only of his editorial work, but also his first books, Ultralight & Microlight Aircraft of the World, produced in conjunction with French journalist Alain-Yves Berger as two editions, 1983 and 1985. These quickly became – and remain – the standard reference works worldwide on microlights of that era.
Despite this heavy involvement in flying, Norman never completed his flying training. “I had every intention of gaining my licence, but quickly realised that I could not afford two expensive mechanical hobbies, and there was no way I was going to stop messing around with cars. So, as far as aviation was concerned, I became a commentator rather than a participator.”
The production requirements of the BMAA's magazine prompted him to join with two colleagues to form a small printing and publishing company, Pagefast Ltd. Contracts for other specialist magazines followed, as well as a lot of general commercial print-work – a managerial workload that left precious little time for writing. So, in 2006, wanting to get off the production treadmill, Norman left the company and reverted to freelance editing work.
Now that he was free to return to his first love, his attention turned to things automotive, in both his writing and his garage. The latter had since 1971 housed what he describes as 'my mistress,' a 1961 AC Ace 2.6, but it had remained dormant for most of those years, due to lack of time and money to complete its restoration. The year 2006 marked the car's rebirth, and it has since taken Norman all over Western Europe and Ireland, with a trip to the Arctic Circle planned for 2015.
This is not Norman’s first Ace – that honour goes to an AC-engined example that his sister wrote off in 1969, a fortnight after he bought it. “It was later rebuilt, but I was a student at the time, and in no position to tackle the job.”
“I bought my present AC a couple of years later,” he continues. “I was about to graduate and start a summer job at a resort in Colorado, so I wasn't in the market for a car, but then a friend of a housemate came to stay. She was a ‘Girl Friday’ for various media and entertainment people and, as Bill Wyman had been a recent client, she arrived complete with free tickets for the forthcoming Stones concert in Bristol. Naturally, she was made very welcome!
“Knowing that she was in a house full of engineers, she casually mentioned that another client, an American scriptwriter in Oxfordshire, was trying to sell a sportscar. When she mentioned the model, everyone's ears pricked up: they remembered my ill-fated first Ace. To learn of another in such a roundabout way was such an astonishing coincidence that I just had to see it. I offered the vendor every penny I had – £700 – but told him he would get nearer £1000 if he advertised it in Car & Driver, as it's one of just a dozen built with LHD. Then I went off to the States and forgot all about it, though I left him my father's phone number, just in case.
“A few weeks later I was sweeping the floor in the reception area when a telegram arrived from my father. It contained just four words: ‘AC purchased, start saving.’ That was 1971; I've had it ever since.
“I’m still in touch with the vendor: he told me later that Car & Driver had lost his advert. It really does feel as though the car found me.”
A third AC, a 1950 Buckland tourer in a poor state, was bought for £80 in 1976 as a restoration project. It was persuaded to run, but only just, and was sold to a Dutchman in more or less the same condition in 1998, only to be repurchased in 2014 after he died. “If I hadn’t,” Burr explains, “I’m sure it would have been scrapped. He'd used it as a donor car.” It is now finally receiving the TLC it deserves in the hands of an enthusiast in Carlisle.
Most of the other cars in Norman’s life have been unremarkable family saloons and hatchbacks, of which his three Alfas (Sud saloon, Sprint and Guilietta) stand out as high points, but he also has a soft spot for Peugeots; especially the deeply unfashionable 605 SVE. “I loved it, even though I never had all the toys working simultaneously at any point during my six-year ownership!”
Books by the same author:
• Ultralight & Microlight Aircraft of the World, co-written with Alain-Yves Berger, published 1983 (also published in French as Tous les ULM du Monde).
• Ultralight & Microlight Aircraft of the World Second Edition, co-written with Alain-Yves Berger, published 1985.
• Living with Speed, a partly biographical look at the speed hillclimb scene through the eyes of Roy Lane's 1996 season, published 1997.
• Mr Big Healey, official biography of racing driver John Chatham, published by Veloce, 2010.
• 32 Days to Beijing, travelogue by James Edmonds about a microlight flight from London to China, published 1994.
• Gertie's Day Out, travelogue by Eve Jackson about emigrating to Tanzania by microlight, published 2006.